Last evening in most convivial company I ate pizza at Il Canale, an Italian restaurant in my neighborhood. My choice was the Napoli, consisting of tomato sauce, basil, black olives, anchovies, and buffalo mozzarella, on a superb crust having just the right textural combination of chew and crunch. I probably inhaled my pizza in about five minutes, because it was so outstanding. On the other hand, it may also have been because my parents always called me “the vacuum cleaner”, due to my ability to suck up enormous quantities of food – a trait which, fortunately, is combined with a rather fast metabolism.
Il Canale has become a favorite among residents of the village, and it’s not hard to understand why. This is not American-style pizza, doughy, perfectly symmetrical, and teeming with processed who knows what. Rather this is the way pizza is generally prepared in Europe, employing long-established guidelines regulated by the Italian government. This means that among other things, the bread is not a chemically based afterthought, virtually tasteless and designed merely to hold the toppings, which are themselves overly processed and lacking in genuine flavor.
Pizza did not yet exist during the time of the Italian Renaissance man among men Count Baldassare Castiglione, the patron of and inspiration for this blog, so we do not know what he might have thought of it as a food. However based on his writings we can assume that he would have found it a rather problematic dish to consume. In his “Book of the Courtier”, Castiglione recounts a dinner party at the home of Federico Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, where one of the guests picked up his nearly-empty soup bowl, said to his host, “Pardon me, my Lord Marquess”, and proceeded to gulp down the remaining broth. “Ask pardon rather of the swine,” replied Gonzaga, “for you do me no harm at all.”
Still, pizza is ultimately a peasant food, and treating it as though it were pheasant under glass when it was meant to be eaten directly with the hands would be a bit precious. This is an inelegant dish, but part of the joy comes in figuring out how best to eat it. I usually attack a whole pie such as this one, by eating the first slice with a fork and knife, in order to make access to the rest of the pizza easier, while simultaneously allowing the often molten-hot cheese to cool slightly. I then follow by picking up each remaining slice in turn and folding it in half, sometimes folding in the point first and then folding the entire slice in half, so that the sauce and toppings have less chance of escaping down the front of my shirt.
Even if you can’t make it to Il Canale, it’s worth seeking out places that do pizza this way, particularly for those of us accustomed to delivery pizza and “discs emerging from the microwave”, as a friend puts it. Yes, pizza is still messy to eat, no matter how fancy it is. What is quite different, in this instance, and very, very enjoyable indeed, is to be able to taste a combination of natural flavors when enjoying one of these types of pies. That, at least, one suspects Castiglione would approve of.